Adventures in legal-weed land: Our writer goes to Washington to explore marijuana legalization

SN&R’s resident cannabis expert goes to Washington—the state—and dishes on the marijuana- legalization experiment up north

PHOTOs BY ngaio bealum

Ngaio Bealum is a Sacramento comedian, activist and marijuana expert.

Carl Sagan once said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” I have a similar observation about marijuana activists: If you ask them how to make a pie, they will tell you how to grow a tree. Most of their stories are full of tangents, sidebars and digressions. It’s not that they ramble and are unfocused, but that they feel you need to have the whole story so you can form your own ideas. I will try not to ramble too much, but I have been a pot activist for more than 20 years, so rambling is kinda my thing.

I am headed to the Seattle Hempfest to entertain the crowds, smoke the herb and see some friends. The plan is to try some of this new, legal recreational grass up there in Washington, too, and get a feel for the current state of activism on the West Coast.

My first stop is supposed to be at the CannaCon in Tacoma, which bills itself as the nation’s largest “cannabusiness and lifestyle expo.” But, honestly, the real first stop is at the Main Street Marijuana dispensary in downtown Vancouver, Wash. And when I say downtown, I mean smack-dab in the heart of it. Right next to a used record store and across the street from a pizza place. That’s a stoner trifecta, and big ups to the city of Vancouver for allowing a marijuana dispensary in such a central location.

I really want to try some of this legal weed, hunt through some records and get a slice, but the store is closed for the weekend because they ran out of grass. Sigh. So, I buy a Slim Harpo CD from the record store and drive up to Tacoma Dome for the CannaCon.

One bad thing about legal weed

Before I leave Vancouver, I actually put all my cannabis in the trunk of my car. It’s not that I’m worried about getting caught with weed; marijuana is legal to possess in Washington state and the police can no longer use a phrase like “I smell marijuana” as an excuse to search your car.

But the law also states that all it takes to be convicted of driving under the influence of cannabis is a THC blood level of 5 nanograms or higher. This is what is known as a “per se” DUI. There’s no trial. If you have 5 nanograms of THC in your bloodstream, you are guilty. In fact, according to Initiative 502—that’s the law that voters passed last year to legalize weed—if you are under 21 and you have any THC in your system at all, you are automatically guilty of driving under the influence.

It’s up for debate how much THC it takes to create impairment. One big problem with enforcement is that THC stays in your system long after the high has worn off. In 2013, after marijuana was legalized but before the shops were open, cops arrested more people for marijuana DUI than they had in the two prior years, according to a report in The Christian Science Monitor.

The thing is, pretty much anyone that uses marijuana every day has at least 5 nanograms in their system.

The Seattle Times also has reported that some law-enforcement officials are still a bit sore about cannabis being legalized, and some police officers are looking for excuses to arrest people for cannabis driving under the influence. Some friends in Seattle told me about a guy that got pulled over by a state trooper and was arrested for suspicion of DUI because he had a “green film” on his tongue. We were all pretty stoned and I thought they were kidding, but I looked it up, and sure enough, it was true. A TV station reported on it. At least in California and Oregon, if you get arrested for suspicion of DUI, the police have to prove you were impaired. Washington cops don’t have to do that.

I ask my friend and superhero cannabis activist lawyer for the people Douglas Hiatt about Washington’s DUI laws. He put it like this: “If you are under 21 and you have any THC in your system at all, you’re fucked.”

“DUIs aren’t like possession charges; you can’t make them go away,” Hiatt explains.

Damn. “Don’t give them an excuse” is my new mantra.

Business is greening

After an uneventful yet pleasant drive (Slim Harpo is a boogie master and a King Bee), I pull up to the Tacoma Dome (free parking—nice!) and head to the convention. CannaCon is definitely all business. There are booths with every sort of cannabis-related product you can imagine. Dirt, seeds. Lights. Packaging. Security. More dirt. Nutrients. Point-of-sale systems. Security. Lawyers. I was reminded of the saying: “When everyone is looking for gold, it’s a good time to be in the pick-and-shovel business.”

I’m surprised to see more than a few marketing experts and brand cultivators at the convention, and this is because I am used to the marijuana industry being somewhat decentralized and anonymous. In fact, in the early days of dispensaries in California, it was the people with recognizable brands that got busted.

Tainted Edibles immediately comes to mind. My homie Mickey Martin was arrested and convicted in federal court for making and selling cannabis-infused chocolate bars in 2007. He was lucky to get a good judge and only got 24 months: 12 at a halfway house and 12 on home confinement, plus five years probation.

Most of the folks I knew back in the day tried to keep a low profile. Now, everyone wants you to know who they are. I suppose this is cool, but I worry about what will happen if the laws change, or if the new president in 2016 decides that the feds aren’t going to allow the states to regulate marijuana. We have been lucky so far, but I remember the medical-cannabis dispensary boom after Barack Obama was elected—and the Drug Enforcement Administration crackdown that happened shortly afterward. Legal cannabis is not yet a done deal.

During the first two months since legal-weed sales kicked off on July 8, Washington dispensaries sold $12.1 million in cannabis, according to the state’s Liquor Control Board. Not bad at all, considering that only 18 of the 40 approved pot shops have opened so far. What’s even crazier, sales doubled in August over July. The state projects nearly $2 million in taxes.

That’s all a lot of green, but my lawyer friend Hiatt calls Washington’s weed “pot for the privileged.” That’s what my pal (and cannabis lawyer) Jim Steinborn calls it, too. It’s not true legalization, they say.

“Recreational marijuana is about $25 a gram. But you can go down the street to the medical dispensary and buy the best cannabis in the state for about $8 a gram if you’re a patient,” Steinborn says.

Indeed, one of the big sticking points in the lead-up to the 2012 vote on I-502’s legalization was that the recreational clubs were going to force the medical clubs to close. That hasn’t happened yet, but the state is looking hard at the idea. Of course Washington wants to maximize profits, but at what cost?

And don’t forget: Marijuana has been an underground commodity for decades. If the taxes are too high, people will just go back to the underground. All of the states looking to legalize would do well to recognize that reality.

Dabs of activism

Whenever someone tells me that stoners are lazy, I tell them to go to the Seattle Hempfest. It is consistently one of the biggest and most well-run festivals on the West Coast. Started in 1991 as the Washington Hemp Expo with a handful of volunteers and about 500 attendees, the Hempfest has grown into a three-day event with seven stages, thousands of volunteers and over 250,000 attendees. Not only that, it is a cannabis-activism incubator. Activists from all over the world show up to cross-pollinate and share ideas about how to re-legalize (marijuana was legal in the United States until 1937) cannabis.

As I walk through the park enjoying the sights and sounds and smells, I bump into hard-core cannabis activists from all over the country. There’s Keith Stroup, one of the founding members of NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. I talk to him for a little bit, but being an East Coast guy, he’s not really up on what’s happening on the West Coast, although he is very excited about all of the legalization movements catching fire across the country. There’s author and raconteur Ed Rosenthal, the “Guru of Ganja.” And Don E. Wirtshafter, a fantastic lawyer and advocate from Ohio, is also on the grounds.

Most of the serious activists and advocates hang out at the Hemposium, a big tent at the front of the fest. The Hemposium hosts various panels and discussion about marijuana and hemp and the best ways to go about legalizing—and how to avoid arrest, how to talk about pot with the media, the medicinal properties of cannabis, and on and on.

I wander a little deeper into the fest, past the minidoughnut and fried PB&J stands. Not too far from the main stage is the THCF, or The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, booth. Sitting inside are Paul and Theresa Stanford, who’ve been instrumental in Oregon’s cannabis-legalization movement. They produce the Portland’s Hempstalk, run a cable-access TV show dedicated to pot, and they were behind the 2012 effort to legalize cannabis in Oregon.

Since they are sitting in the shade and it is about 90 degrees outside, I sit down next to Paul to smoke a joint and ask him some questions.

He says he’s fired up about Measure 91, the ballot measure to legalize marijuana in Oregon, that voters will chime in on this fall. “I think this initiative is the best in the country so far. Way better than Washington or Colorado. You can possess 8 ounces. You can grow four plants. A license to be involved in the cannabis industry is only $1,200.”

I ask him about the taxes, which have been a bit of a sore spot in Washington. He calls the solution simple: Tax “five bucks per plant” and charge “$35 per ounce for buds and $10 an ounce for shake.” He also points out that “Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax, so that’s it,” and there shouldn’t be any more fees on top of that. We finish the joint, and I merge back into the crowd.

Myrtle Edwards Park in Seattle is very narrow, but hella long. From tip to tip, it’s about a mile and a half. The air is thick with smoke, but I seldom see any cops. In fact, the police seem to be going out of their way not to hassle anyone.

I remember the early days of the festival, when pot smoking not only was not allowed, it was actively discouraged. The cops would show up early and arrest a few people for smoking at the beginning. That would scare people into refraining for a while, but by the time 75,000 people have gathered to celebrate cannabis, there’s no way they can arrest all of us.

I also remember overhearing a conversation between two staffers two years ago about how there were no police officers in the park for like an hour. Imagine that: 100,000 people in a park smoking weed, not one cop, and no major problems. I have never seen one fight at a hemp fest. One time, I saw a guy try to snatch a bong from a vendor and run off, but the crowd was too thick and he was quickly apprehended by the volunteer staff and escorted off the premises.

By the way, the marijuana in Seattle is plentiful and delicious. No one seems to have anything from the two legal pot shops that have opened so far (as I mentioned above, apparently they have run out of supply), although representatives from the Caviar Cone Company (branding!) are handing out samples backstage. They are promoting their line of flavored joints. Two flavors: raspberry and green apple. The smoke is thick like hookah tobacco, and the flavor of the joints more than a little sweet, but I can’t really taste the weed itself. The effects were pretty good, though, and other people seemed to really enjoy them. I give one to a young man at the fest, and he is very excited. There are plenty of folks walking around trying to sell dime bags and medicated edibles. This is frowned upon by the festival staff, and people that get caught get escorted out.

One of the new attractions this year is the “bring your own dabs” bar. A “dab” is another way to say hash oil. Generally, you scoop a glob of hash oil onto a piece of metal and place it onto a heating source. The heat vaporizes the hash oil, and you inhale the vapors through a tube or a straw. Hash oil is much stronger than weed. It’s like doing a shot instead of sipping a beer.

There are two different areas with hash oil “rigs” set up, and folks are allowed to dab away to their heart’s content. I have a few samples from a concentrates competition in San Francisco on me, so I sit down and d0 a dab or two or three. (It gets a little hazy. I remember trading dabs with the dude sitting next to me. He enjoyed my award-winning Durban Poison from Bliss Edibles, and I enjoyed his whatever it was that he had with him.) We enjoy this at the bar provided by the good people from the Have a Heart Cafe, which is a chain of medical-cannabis dispensaries in the Seattle area. (A chain? My friend Virgil Grant is in prison right now because he had a chain of dispensaries in Los Angeles; times are changing.) I peel myself away from the bar in search of coffee and minidoughnuts.

How California should legalize it

Later that night, at the party for speakers and VIPs, California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Orange County, steps up to deliver an impromptu speech. First, he talks about how he is enjoying his “gateway drug” of choice: beer. Then, he talks about how legalization is on the way in California, and some other stuff. I am hella faded at this point, so I don’t really listen to all of it, but I am happy and proud that a California politician had come up to Seattle to show support for the cause.

Seeing the congressman gets me thinking about what legalization in California should look like. It’s obvious that the Washington and Colorado laws, while pretty cool as first steps, don’t address some of the issues we will have down here.

California is unique in that we have a decades-old, ingrained cannabis industry. Saying the words “Humboldt County” to a pot smoker is like saying “Napa Valley” to a wine snob. Any law we pass has to take that into account. We can’t just kick all the people that risked their freedom to grow this plant and build this community to the curb.

Also, it turns out that the people buying most of the weed in Colorado and Washing-ton are tourists. All of the locals already have their connections in place, and the pot shop is an expensive convenience. A friend of mine from Portland said she went to the Vancouver shop one time because her connect was out of town and she was headed to the river. She said the pot was very good but very pricey. If California wants a piece of the weed game, they will have to find a way to do it that respects the growers and fosters tourism.

I have a friend in southern Oregon that does “Weed & Wine” tours. They pick you up in Medford, then roll you around the Rogue Valley, stopping at various wineries and medical gardens along the way. California needs something like that. We can’t stop at recreational pot shops. We need farmers markets and “Bud and Breakfast” hotels and “Weed of the Month” clubs and “doob ranches” and other things to truly bring the recreational-cannabis industry into the future.

I know that legalization in California is on the way. The question is: What will it look like? Steve DeAngelo, the dude behind Harborside Health Center in Oakland, used to talk about “flipping the switch.” His concept: The infrastructure is already in place with the medical clubs; all the Legislature would have to do is flip the switch to make the medical collectives into recreational stores.

Another friend of mine, who has been in the industry longer than I have, is sure that George Soros and his money are gonna do some hard-core polling, and whatever ideas poll well, those are the ideas that will make it onto the ballot. I am not so sure that is the way to go. Like I said, California is unique. Hell, some growers don’t want anything to change. They like being outlaws. I suppose we will have to wait and see.

Anyway, my final two days in Washington go by in a haze of pot smoke and friendly discussions. A group of activists are trying to get an initiative on the ballot that would amend parts of I-502. Some folks are talking about opening a private, high-end, members-only pot club. I tell myself that one day I will start a Tumblr page dedicated to the T-shirts worn at hemp fests.

Before I drive back to Sacramento, I try to hit the recreational clubs one more time. The new spot in Bothell has a long line, and the owner of the Chevron next door is upset because people keep parking at the gas station to go to the pot shop—and they don’t buy anything at his convenience store. Since I parked at the gas station, I left before he could call the tow trucks.

The one in Seattle’s south of downtown, or SoDo district, also has a very long line. It curves around the building like a movie premiere. The club in Vancouver is still closed when I try to go again.

Good thing I have some California weed to tide me over.